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Cruising the Ethanol Highway

Hybrid cars using plant- based fuel and electricity could save huge amounts of gas. Hydrogen is no answer now.

February 15, 2004|David Morris

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared his support for a "hydrogen highway." By 2010 he wants hydrogen fueling stations on all of California's 26 interstates, and the word is that right after the March 2 election he will sign an executive order to make it so.

It's hard not to applaud the governor's courage. At last, a politician is proposing a strategy commensurate with the scale of the problem. Hydrogen could end our dependence on foreign oil. But to achieve that goal we will need to rebuild every facet of our transportation system. Hydrogen stations must replace gas stations. Fuel cells must replace internal combustion engines. In California alone, the capital investment would exceed $50 billion.

The governor's vision could be achieved decades sooner at a fraction of the cost. How? By substituting ethanol (and hybrid vehicles) for hydrogen (and fuel-cell vehicles).

The move to ethanol works in part because it is based on current technology. Automakers already make cars that run on various combinations of gasoline and ethanol for an additional cost of only $150 per car. More than 4 million gasoline-and-ethanol cars are now on the road, several hundred thousand in California. (The California Air Resources Board predicts that even by 2015 a fuel-cell car running on hydrogen would cost an additional $10,000. Other estimates run several times higher.)

But a better platform for ethanol -- the one required to assure an end to our reliance on fossil fuels -- is a variation on the hybrid electric vehicle, that other car technology that's also up, running and popular (there's a two-month waiting list for the 2004 Toyota Prius hybrid).

Hybrids now reduce gasoline consumption by 30% to 50% by using electric motors as well as an engine to power the car. Its batteries are charged by the car's internal combustion engine. Hybrids can be modified so that their batteries can be charged by plugging them into the electricity grid as well as the car's engine. That makes electricity the car's primary fuel, reducing gasoline consumption by about 85%. That in turn makes it possible to use ethanol as the engine's primary fuel, not just a 6% additive, as is the case today. There are already charging stations in California, and developing this next-generation hybrid would not be a major leap. Last year, California reserved its highest incentives for fuel-cell development rather than plug-in hybrids. That decision should be revisited.

Modifying hybrid technology for ethanol use makes sense not only because it is a relatively simple task. Ethanol is cheaper than hydrogen fuel now -- and that's true even if ethanol subsidies are eliminated from the equation. Ethanol should still beat hydrogen in cost comparisons a decade from now. In addition, an ethanol fueling station can be built for less than 10% of the cost of a hydrogen fueling station.

Ethanol, which comes from renewable plant matter, is made in the United States by fermenting corn sugars. On the other hand, it's not yet efficient or cost-effective to make hydrogen from renewable resources. Even the most ardent hydrogen/fuel-cell proponents concede that for the foreseeable future hydrogen will come from fossil fuels like natural gas.

Ethanol has its critics, of course. Some consider it a boondoggle for Midwestern farmers and for agribusiness giant (and ethanol maker) Archer Daniels Midland. But Californians should realize that although the state raises very little corn, its dairy industry consumes a great deal of the grain as feed. If the state were to "bio-refine" the 4.5 million tons of corn now imported as animal feed, it could produce about 500 million gallons of ethanol each year from the corn starch and still have a high-protein feed left over for its dairy herds -- not to mention a new industry.

Ethanol has also been criticized because it contains only a little more energy than is used in growing the crop, making the fuel and getting it to cars. The ratio is about 1.4 energy units out for every one in. But that is still higher than the net energy ratio of hydrogen, and it can be improved upon. When ethanol is made from sugars from cellulose, an abundant substance found in grasses, corn stalks, wheat straw, trees, kelp and urban organic wastes, the ratio should exceed 2 to 1.

Three years ago, California's cars used no ethanol. Last year, the state used about 700 million gallons. There's no reason that California can't take this beginning and make the state the leader in ending the nation's reliance on fossil fuels. The executive order should be "ethanol highways," not "hydrogen highways."

David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington and Minneapolis and the author of a report on ethanol, "A Better Way."

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